Thursday, June 19, 2003
I have a new found love for the good ole boy. Growing up here in the class and race turmoil of the '70s, I saw the good ole boy as the enemy. The Southern man who embodied all I despaired of. Bigotry, hatred, active destruction of all that I thought could change and be good about the South.
This wasn't my dad or my brothers, mind you. Those were sweet men who espoused social change and acceptance, who talked about ancient history at the dinner table.
I left for New England and then California, surrounding myself with intellectuals and wannabe intellectuals who were quick to accept my rejection of my home as confirmation of their negative ideas of all things southern.
On a recent trip back to California for a wedding, I overheard a conversation between two men. One had bravely offered to help the other change his tire, though the offer came with the disclaimer that while he'd never actually done it, he'd be glad to try. The owner of the tiny sports car with the flat said, "Hey, thanks man, but I've never changed one, either, and I don't want to risk it rolling down the hill. I'm just gonna call triple A." I looked at these men, said I was sorry for eavesdropping but that they should never tell anyone about this conversation if they were to ever visit the South. These were married, man-ish men. These were not, however, good ole boys.
Now that I'm back living here, I've found that I love good ole boys. Fifteen years away from the South taught me you don't have to be Southern and male to be racist, sexist or just downright mean. Nor, I have decided, do you have to be white or male to be a good ole boy. My feminist nature cringes at the gender-specific language, but sometimes you just got to go with a good thing, and I've decided a good ole boy is a good thing.
The horrid Klan members who bombed churches and temples—these were and are not good ole boys in my book. There's nothing good about that behavior. They were hateful, self-righteous and amoral, not so different from the fanatical Muslims willing to kill themselves in the taking of other lives; only they marched/march under a cross.
Good ole boys don't destroy. But here are a few things good ole boys know well:
How to fix stuff. This is one of the immutable confidences that allows someone with not much more than a high school education to believe without a doubt they have the ability to fly around like superman and save lives. All you need are the right tools. The human body is kind of like a truck. If it's broke, it most likely can be fixed, or at least held together till we can get it to someone who can fix it.
Though I'm in the same fixing profession as the good ole boys I work with (I'm a paramedic), this notion doesn't come naturally to me. I'm more comfortable with the constant anxiety that things are a mess and can't be fixed. I worry, for example, about how we are ruining our environment to the extent that it cannot be saved. But what am I doing now to fix it? If more of us were truly of good ole boy stock, maybe we'd be cleaning this mess up now. We might all just look around and say "Now what tools are we gonna need to clean this mess up? Roscoe, you got anything over at your place?"
How to accessorize. The guys I work with on the ambulance love to accessorize. They have a fascination with tools of all sorts: special lights, pocket knives, radios, hand-held computers full of digitized life-saving information. Many of the cars they drive to work are adorned with wrenches, radios, fire-fighting equipment, their own emergency light bars. Mine has a toy ambulance on the dashboard and some latex gloves in the glove box. I have a long way to go before I reach good ole boy status.
Many women I know have indeed achieved it. It may be their natural ability to accessorize. Or an innate, co-dependent need to make everything OK. The women I work with, and other paramedic women I know around Mississippi, may be the most feminine women to look at, but they know every which way to deal with somebody upside down in a ditch, or how to scold a cracked-out hoodlum twice their size so he'll sit still for the ride and say "yes ma'am." They would never call for help if a tiny sports car had a flat.
One paramedica (Spanish for woman paramedic) I know is married with kids, works full time out in the country and comes into Jackson to work nights on our crazy never-sleeping streets, often after watching her daughter's game or maybe hearing her husband preach. She may win the good-ole-boy woman prize. I don't know if I'll ever be that tough. And another thing that woman knows is the third key to the fabulous good-ole-boy nature. She knows how to chill and enjoy life.
How to relax. For this I am most grateful to the good ole boys I know. If the job is done, relax. Make time to relax. Spend time with your family. Go out on the pontoon boat (or whatever your equivalent may be) and have a good time. Go spend three hours getting to, watching and settling down from your daughter's softball game. This is not time wasted. This is life. If you want, bow your head over that leftover casserole you opened up for a quick bite between crises. And, most importantly, laugh. I love the jokes my co-workers tell me, no matter how bad. Yeah, some have told me racist ones, but those guys don't count as good ole boys in my book. Not till they clean up their act.
I've been starting to see the good ole boy in my brothers and my late father. I'm so glad. Maybe Daddy was a lost cause in home repair, but many people have told me how he saved their life when he was their doctor. With his thick old-fashioned South Carolinian accent, that good ole boy put himself through college and med school and picked up a few tools along the way—if less tangible than a wench and a leatherman. He would have loved to accessorize with a PDA. Though he worked like a dog, he prioritized his relaxation, insisted on it in fact: his garden, his exercise, cooking, reading the multiple books piled at his bedside.
Now I see my brothers are proving their birthright as good ole boys, and I love it. The oldest fixes faces. Fancy college, med school, surgeon—you might think he had no hope as a good ole boy. When he told me about the pro-bono reconstructive work he was doing for battered women, I swelled with pride. That good ole boy can fix some stuff.
The oldest is a nurse and gives of his big heart daily to his patients and his growing family. He may work hard but he's got that relaxation thing down. The one who's here in Mississippi, whom I've followed all over the country in my youngest-child attempt at closeness, I'm perhaps most proud of. This big white Southern boy went out and got himself educated in the ways of the world, with big degrees, and brought those tools back home, where he dedicates his life to helping some of the poorest of Jackson learn how to help themselves. He and his co-workers on Bailey Avenue help kids find the tools (after-school programs teaching study skills, promoting confidence) so they can accessorize (good ACT scores, a vision of a broader world) and work toward a life in which they can balance the hard work and deserved relaxation of a good ole boy.
I have a new vision of a good ole boy now. And it's fine. Just fine.
Ellen Langford is an artist and a paramedic in Jackson.